Friday, October 22, 2010

John Gangel on Collector Grade Firearms

To say that John Gangel man is a wealth of knowledge would be a massive understatement. Mr. Gangel has been collecting antique firearms for the better part of 50 years and knows the industry inside and out. He was gracious enough to speak at length with us about his background in firearms and give us some insights into fine gun and antique firearm collecting.

When did you first get started collecting firearms? Well, I got interested in firearms in the late 1960s actually. I had a few guns before that, but in the late 1960s I got interested in antique firearms and basically pursued that end and I've been with it ever since.

Tell us a bit about your first collectors piece. What was the first gun you ever truly fell in love with? Oh, well my first decent guns were when I had a little moving business. I was in my teens and I traded a move to an elderly lady. I moved her household and traded her for a few old Winchesters and found out that Winchesters sold pretty good. I started concentrating and buying and selling antique guns and that was in about 1969 or 1970.

The first gun I really fell in love with I would say was serial number 1 Texas Paterson which was the first Colt that was ever made and I had it in my collection from 1975 to 1993.

Obviously it took a number of years for you to acquire your knowledge of antique firearms. Did you attend a lot of auctions or did you work inside the industry to gain that knowledge? Yes, all of the above. Basically I traveled to gun shows for many years. I worked in the firearm business. My first business partner was a man named Moe Gruensky at the Musket and Saber in Costa Mesa and I started with him full time in 1969. In 1974 I opened a place called the Antique Arms Locker in Pasadena and in 1975 I opened a business called The Arms Cellar and I had that both of those places from 1975 until early 1990s.

I went into business with a gentleman named Bob Ells from Ells Fargo in 1974 and I was with him until 1979. At one time I had three gun shops in Southern California, one antique and two modern.

So you were doing business in California this entire time? I've been in business in California since 1969.

Tell me a bit about working in that atmosphere. California is not exactly friendly toward gun shops and firearm dealers, even if they do deal in antiques. It definitely is difficult. You have to pay attention and you have to dot the i's and cross the t's and if it's any fun it's not legal in California if it's a gun.

We had a lady come in this morning with a paratrooper carbine that was mint and original and hard to find and I had to tell her that "you can't sell it and you have to take the stock off the gun. It's OK to have the gun and it's OK to have the stock but you can't have the stock on the gun because it's an assault rifle."

She asked "Why is that?" and I had to tell her "That's the way they say it is."

So you were collecting these fine guns for some time before opening up Little John's Auction Service. Well, you know I was selling guns professionally as a dealer and we opened up Little John's Auction Service in 1978 and I've been auctioning fine firearms since then.

...and of course at some point you branched out into other non-firearm collectibles and antiques as well. Yes. Basically I've always concurrently dealt in paintings, fine arts, and antiques. The last 5 years I've moved my book of business in that field over to Prescott Arizona and I'm affiliated with Reata Pass Auctions which is run by my daughter Gabrielle, she's second generation. She sells a lot of the cars, antiques, fine art and antique furniture, porcelain collectibles and that sort of thing. I refer that business to her. I still have one auction a year here locally in Orange County which is my Christmas sale where I sell jewelry and antiques and other related items in what we'd call a "Collector's Auction" and we have one of those every year in December.

That keeps you on a pretty busy schedule then- We do 5 auctions a year and we have a gallery where we have private customers we sell to on a private basis. And then I travel to gun shows also. We kind of do it all.

You probably have to start working on the next auction as soon as the hammer falls on the last item then. That's exactly right. We're cataloging and taking consignments for our December sale right now.

How do you assemble all of these guns into lots and into a complete auction? Do you seek out the items or do consignees basically find you when they have a piece they want to sell? Basically, word of mouth is my best form of advertisement. A lot of other guys will advertise in the Wall Street Journal and other national magazines, but if they haven't heard of me in 40 years of doing business they've been living under a rock. I'm the auctioneer for the Colt Collector's Association, I'm the auctioneer for Winchester Collector's Organization, I'm the judge and the Winchester show and I'm the judge at the Colt show. I'm the auctioneer at Texas Gun Collectors and I'm the judge at Texas Gun Collectors. Pretty much I'm well known in the auction business.

I would definitely agree with that. In fact, let's talk about one of the many guns that became associated with your name. Back in 2003 you auctioned off a very famous gun, the one used to kill Jesse James. Yes, that's definitely one of the more famous guns. You know, it got national attention. It was well documented and so it did get a lot of play. I think when I sold Houston's Bowie knife and way back when I sold the Museum of Rock & Roll I probably got as much national attention, but that one really seemed to go around with the gun collectors.

It truly resonated, especially with the final price of $350,000 that it finally hammered away at. It's got to be exciting for you as an auctioneer to see these prices realized. Tell us a bit about how important the role of the auctioneer is in getting that price. Well, you know my advantage over the other guys is that I actually know what I'm selling. Most auctioneers are selling bushels of wheat and corn the day before and they don't really know one gun from the other. It's a big help for me when I'm actually auctioning the item off I actually know something about history, know the gun, normally know the guy who's going to buy it and know the guy it came from. Basically when I was able to sell the Houston Bowie knife for close to $400,000 what the difference was was knowing the history of the item and knowing how to make the history work in a short space of time in order to sell it.

The history is incredibly important when selling any antique. In the auction business you refer to it as provenance. How do you go about authenticating the provenance of these antiques? Well, it's a process basically. Sometimes you just can't, but I have a person on staff here whose name is John Robinson who is a retired Chief of the Sheriff's Department and is a good investigator and he's a collector himself of historic arms. The two of us investigate things quite diligently before we try to sell them because if we don't believe it we don't put it in our catalog.

You know, I'm very careful with how I word things and I'm very careful about how I describe things. Sometimes you just have to say that it's a story based on something Uncle Ed told Aunt Edna, and that has somewhat of a value but you have to tie it in.

There's a very interesting gun in this auction which I really like and Mr. Robinson really likes, and it's a shotgun that belonged to Jeff Milton, who was a famous Texas Ranger and a famous lawman. The provenance and history on it is really great. It came out of the collection of a man named John Wilson. John Wilson was a big collector who collected historic arms in the very early days. He was from New Mexico and Texas and had ranches in both New Mexico and Texas. He knew a lot of the very early collectors. His father and grandfather were collectors. His father actually knew Pancho Villa personally and basically almost anything from his collection that has that kind of history is really well received.

This shotgun is particularly interesting in that there is a letter from a man named Fallis who was a border patrol supervising agent in the area of Tucson and Jeff Milton worked for him, and it tells the story of how Jeff Milton gave him this gun. It's a nice story and it's good documentation that it came from Wilson and Fallis and these people existed and you can prove that. But what really authenticates it is that there are unpublished photographs of Milton with Fallis and then the one that really drives it home is the one of Milton sitting at the dinner table with Fallis and his wife. This was in his later years and he's sitting at the dinner table with them in their home and then there is a newspaper article during the same period of time that tells about Jeff Milton eating dinner with them in the home that was written in Tucson and was an interview with the wife in the 1940s telling about Jeff Milton.

That's the kind of thing you hope to get, you like to get, and you wish everything had. It's all a process of basically being able to prove these things. You have to prove them. You can't always prove them beyond any doubt but you have to basically establish a circumstantial and likely case. In the case of this Milton gun it's pretty hard to improve upon. You can't get much better than that.

There is also a companion revolver that goes with that shotgun, a Jeff Milton Colt Army Special. Right. It did come from the same place but see that won't bring a huge price because it isn't as well documented. It basically came along with the other gun, but that's all.

How do you make the decision what collections to break up into separate lots and what items to sell together as a set? Well you have to review it and you have to discuss it. Basically I get a second opinion, and I didn't think that the second piece was really important to the first piece. I didn't feel that it helped it that much, so I decided to separate it and sell it separately because the provenance and documentation on that is not as exacting as the other piece. It doesn't say that he used it, he had it and it's likely a gun that he picked up in his travels but not one likely that he used.

The history of these guns is really so important, and I think you'd agree that that is really what collectors are looking for is to own a piece of history. That's correct for a lot of collectors. Some collectors really don't care. The history collectors are into the history and then there are other guys who are into variations. Collecting is a broad myriad of many types of collectors. Some people could care less about history, they don't care.

Speaking of guns without much history, you've got one firearm in this auction that has never been used at all, a 1854 Volcanic carbine rifle that is still new in the box. It is, and it's in it's original box and it's the only one known to exist in this condition. Interestingly enough I thought that that gun had crossed my path years ago, but I couldn't remember it and an old time local collector here whose name is Doug Minnick, he's the maven of Winchester people here in the Southern California area. He was collecting fine Winchesters basically before I was born. I knew him very well. He was acquiring some very good Winchesters in the late '50s and early '60s and he was acquiring them mostly from a guy named Elmer Taylor, and Elmer Taylor had been collecting since the '40s and '50s. We both thought that Elmer Taylor had had this gun and we didn't think there was another one, but couldn't prove it. As it turns out I traced the ownership through about 6 owners over the last almost 50 years and sure enough it had been Elmer Taylors about 40 or 50 years ago.

You mentioned earlier that you got started collecting when you were a teen, and we've been discussing some of the more rare and higher priced firearms, but there are actually some inexpensive bargains to be found at your auction as well. Tell me a bit about them. Matter of fact there are a couple of pocket models in this auction that are inscribed from the Civil War that are really neat guns that have quite rare inscriptions on them and they are very historic and interesting and can be had for a few thousand dollars. And these guns are neat! I read the description of some of them 4 and 5 times and really liked them. There are a lot of other things that aren't terribly expensive that have a lot of history with them. Some of these dueling pistols, for goodness sake, the history on some of those dueling pistols is incredible.

So what you're saying is that anybody can get started collecting for less than the price of a modern rifle. Well, that's something that's really interesting. I know some guys who are spending $3000, $4000, even $5000 for a shooting gun that isn't anything special. Some of the high end shotguns cost $100,000 and more. You can really buy nice antique guns that have some history with them starting at about $400 or $500. It doesn't seem like an incredible amount of money.

For example, Philadelphia Derringers. Philadelphia Derringers have such intriguing history in America. One was used to kill Abraham Lincoln, they were used all during the frontier period and the Civil War period. They have tremendous association to San Francisco and the Barbary Coast and the Western Frontier, '49 and gold miners...

They're the American classic gun, the Derringer pistol, and you can still buy a nice Derringer for $1,500 and you can buy a very nice Derringer for $3,500 and you can buy a great one for $5,000. You know, we have 20 of them in this sale and I've been telling some of my customers that I think that Philadelphia Derringers are incredibly cheap and incredibly interesting. Especially when they have San Francisco Agent's marks on them, that means that they were sold here during the gold rush.

We see these prices vary greatly from year to year. How much of that is driven by buyer interest in a particular model? Well, we've had some price surges over the years that have leveled out. The most notable of what you're talking about is Henry rifles. Henry rifles went through the roof when [the movie] Dances With Wolves came out, and you know they've been going well for about 15 years. They finally got so expensive that they started to level out and have probably gone back down 10%. That was just a lot of hype I would say.

Colt single actions, high end engraved Colt single actions were being pushed very hard for the last about 10 years by about 3-4 very wealthy collectors. They started buying the late engraved single actions for as much as the early engraved single actions, and that was a phenomenon.

I was actually the first one to do it. I sold a late engraved single action for $125,000. It was made in the 1930s, and previous to that no one had seen a 1930s engraved single action break $50,000, or even $30,000. What that was was a couple of wealthy collectors who decided they were going to buy all of the mint engraved single actions that they could. They didn't care if they were 1937, 1930, or 1870, which they were wrong about.

What happened was that the market was pushed by these three guys, then one of the guys died, another guy quit collecting, another one passed away, and another guy got enough. So, the result of that was that whole bunch of them came up in an auction back east and most of them didn't even sell for half of what they had brought because that was a market that was being overly inflated by a few collectors. And you have to watch that. We haven't seen that dramatic of a thing in many years, and when we see that kind of dramatic uprise in things, like the real estate bubble, it is usually followed by a fall.

Presumably a shrewd collector who wanted to scoop up a good bargain on an antique firearm could do a little bit of learning and find out what is going on in the industry and hunt for some great deals. You're 100% right. I was just in Texas, and a very shrewd old buyer who's been at it for 40 years named Dr. Nick Shannon, who's been kind of the go-to guy for the last 40 years when you had a good engraved single action, was out of it for 3-4 years. He was a seller, and now that the prices have adjusted to where he feels comfortable and the prices are in his price range he's very shrewdly buying some.

That is one interesting thing about the collectors market and auctions in general is how the prices are set solely by how much one person desires something. There's no inherent value in the item itself. You know I often have testified and told people that there really isn't any price on unique history. It's just a willing buyer and a willing seller. I talked to a man once who bought a painting for a world record price that was five times what a painting of that type might bring and I asked him what made it worth that type of money.

He told me "It isn't worth anything. It doesn't have anything to do with worth. I'm a business man and what my accountants define as "worth" is how much there is for a return on an investment that I'm buying. There's no guaranteed return on [the painting as an] investment, there's no formula that I can factor. This is just a situation that this is how much money it costs for me to own this, and I have the money, so that's how much I'll pay for it. The fact that I paid five times the high that anyone felt this artist would bring has nothing to do with reality, it's just the price of ownership."

So, it all comes down to how much you're willing to pay to own a piece of history. That's it. There's no value on unique history. It's willing buyer and willing seller.

How does one participate in one of these auctions? I'm in Texas and not going to be able to travel to California for this auction, what options are there if another reader sees an item that they want to bid on? Well there are several ways. Most people will get a catalog, which we are very liberal in giving away. If a person requests a catalog and is a member of any club we send it to them for cost, and don't even charge them for the catalog in most cases. Our catalog is also online and we have online bidding through 3 or 4 providers like and etc. They can bid online through those forms of bidding or they can bid by phone or they can bid by sealed bid. We take sealed bids, phone bids, and internet bids.

Then we have a live group of people who generally show up. We have a huge crowd at our auctions, 500 bidders usually at a sale like this. Our auctions are held at a place called the Phoenix Club, which is the oldest German Club in Southern California and was started by the original immigrants to Anaheim. It's a beautiful club that has the best beer and German food, a very nice facility. We have the auctions at that location and they're very well attended. It's a fun deal.

Of course you don't have to be a bidder to attend do you? I just had a couple of guys in here today and I gave them a catalog and they were kind of apologetic and said "Well, we're not really buyers,"

And I said "Listen, one of the things I enjoy is that this is a hands-on museum. I like collectors who come out, look at the catalog and keep the catalog."

At this auction there were 1,600 guns that the guy had never seen. There are almost 150 dueling pistols. There are probably only 300-350 American dueling pistols in the United States of America by his estimate and mine. That's almost half that exist, and by far the best collection. Then the memorabilia is fantastic, letters written by Jackson about his duel is the only one in private hands, and other supporting documents are incredibly great. You couldn't go to any museum in the United States of America and see anything like this.

You bring up an interesting point on how educational these auctions can be. So many people these days aren't familiar with the history of our nation. Well, I'm trying to pass it on to other collectors and I have a vested interest, besides money, I like to start collectors. I like collectors, and I am a collector. I'm not in this solely for the money. You know I really enjoy collecting, that's why I'm in a lot of clubs. I donate a lot of money and a lot of time to helping most of the major clubs in the United States such as the NRA, the Texas Gun Collectors, the Colt Collectors Association and the Winchester Collectors Association, because I want to see collecting go on. It is a fraternity, I'm aware of that, and what I try to do particularly in my catalog is have a research quality catalog.

I think that that's very important. I look at a lot of gun catalogs and basically the descriptions are terrible. They bear no resemblance to the gun whatsoever. They're done by people who aren't gun people, have no appreciation of history, and don't understand what they sell. I think if you read my catalog, after reading it you could say basically that the person who wrote this knows what he's looking at and knows about history.

What can we do to encourage the next generation of, not just collectors, but firearm enthusiasts? Give them books and catalogs and tell them to read, because once they read the story of America and once they see the American firearms and once they get that bug of reading the history, like I have a book on the life of Robert Hall who is one of the great Texas Rangers. I've had probably more Texas Ranger stuff than almost anyone. I've owned Ben McCulloch's gun, I've owned some of the best Texas Rangers stuff there are. I sold Houston's Bowie knife. I was able to buy a frontiersman's outfit that was Robert Hall's, who was one of the great early Texas Rangers along with a powder horn that was presented to him by Sam Houston. It's documented by a book written on his life in the 1890s where it is pictured. It's one of the best things I've ever owned. I just displayed it in Texas.

What was so much fun for me, and a bunch of other people, I had never read this book on Robert Hall and I consider myself a pretty knowledgeable party, not an expert on the Texas Rangers, but a very knowledgeable party. I've read hundreds of books on the Texas Rangers and by buying this outfit and the horn I also got the book with it and there was a completely new dimension to the Texas Rangers written by a man in the 1890s who was right there. There was a lot of information in there that I hadn't previously known, and there's a great little anecdotal story in there about how Hall and Bigfoot Wallace were invited at the 50 year Centennial of Texas in 1886. In 1886 the Texans started having appreciation for their history because it was 50 years since the Texas Revolution and they had a big series of shindigs, events and things and they invited Wallace and Hall to this big event.

They showed up there and they were dressed like frontiersmen and everyone was really enthusiastic about hearing them speak. The announcer asked them to say a few words and give a speech and they looked at each other and said "We can't speak, we're not professional speakers" and the announcer asked them "Well, what can you do?" and they replied "Go get a couple of fiddlers, we're going to show you how we dance."

So, they went and got a couple of fiddlers and they told them that on the frontier they learned to dance from the Indians and that the guys on the frontier would dance like the old frontiersmen at the rendezvous in the hills. So they got out and they had this big shindig and they had thousands of people cheering. To this day this is remembered as these guys doing this hoe-down with fiddles playing and entertaining thousands of people at the Centennial of Texas. It's just a great story.

Tell me about some of the guns that you've had that you didn't have a complete history on that later turned out to have a rich and surprising story behind them. There is one in particular right off the top of my head was a Texas Paterson that had belonged to a Texas Ranger named Lowe. There are only a couple of Texas Patersons that are dedicated to Texas Rangers and this one was in really poor condition. It was probably the poorest condition Texas Paterson that I ever had, but it had absolutely impeccable history as belonging to a Ranger named Lowe.

I had it for a little while until one of my friends talked me out of it. I really did a little bit of research, not too much, and I sold it to a guy who was a great researcher. I was out driving in Texas and for some reason had decided to pull over at this historical marker out in the boonies on the east side of Texas heading into Louisiana. As I pulled in I saw "Grave site of a Texas Ranger" and it was Lowe's grave site.

It told the whole story of about him and how he'd been a pioneer in the area and how he'd been an Indian fighter and so on and so forth. So I called the friend of mine who I sold this to and told him "Look, I found Lowe".

We had known a little bit about him, but not very much, but there was the whole story and it was just by luck that I pulled into his resting place just because I saw a historical marker.

You really do have a wealth of knowledge on these firearms and their history... You know, I write a book every time I do a catalog. My latest catalog was about 360,000 words. A pocket book that you buy in the airport is generally 60,000-90,000 words. That's basically 3-3.5 books here and I'm going to do another one in May of next year. My books are my catalogs.

It must be difficult to condense such rich histories down into a small paragraph or two. Well, my editor is my wife. A lot of it ends up on the cutting room floor if it becomes too long winded. Sometimes you have a tendency to over prevaricate.

Much of the provenance and authentication materials, letters and such, get sold with the firearm. We're very conscious with trying to keep the provenance. As I said, I've got a researcher on staff who is much more diligent about it than I am. He's written a lot of articles for magazines and he's a collector. His job is to help me with the provenance and help me to maintain the paperwork and provenance. For this auction we have 5 or 6 huge boxes filled with history and provenance that go with the Orbello collection.

It's very important to keep that all, and I think most collectors that are out there realize that I am really cognizant of keeping the history and provenance with the material and I really make an effort to really stay with it. Unfortunately sometimes I've been in to some collections where collectors got old or they got a little bit sloppy when they got sick and some paperwork got discarded here or there.

In some cases it just becomes too voluminous. I was just taking care of Tom Seymour's estate and Tom Seymour started collecting in the 1950s and collected for 50 years and he never threw anything away. It was thousands of pieces of paper. It was a truckload of research and basically we just took about the last 10 boxes and just auctioned it off at the Texas Gun Collectors show and one fellow decided that it was going to be his job to go through all of this and try to get it to the right people. He'd maintain it until he could find some people who could sift through it and basically try to get it to people who knew about it, because some of it was important.

That's a very good point about what happens when people come into this by inheriting an existing collection, or even just a few antique firearms. So many people don't know how to maintain these collections or care for the firearms, I'm sure you've had some heart wrenching experiences coming across an exquisite piece that was "cleaned up". I've had some bad experiences like that. We had a local gun smith here, and I won't use his name, but he was a local gunsmith and he knew nothing about antique guns. All he cared about was trying to make a few hundred dollars on every gun that walked in his store.

I had appraised a very fine Kentucky rifle for a woman in a retirement community that was made by Albright. Albright was a man who carved stocks on Kentucky rifles very beautifully with animals in high relief. It's very rare, and he was as good a carver as some of the European carvers of the 18th and 19th century. It was a beautiful gun and was in untouched original condition.

I had a close friend whose name is Walter O'Connor who is probably the premier expert on early Americana. In my opinion he is since Bill Guthman died. Walter and I were willing to pay for the gun at the time, and this was many years ago, $25,000. We're going back probably 20 years here. We told the lady all this and left her with an offer and about 7 years go by and I happened to go into this gun shop in Souther California and hanging on the wall was a Kentucky rifle. I asked them to take it down and they took it down and I recognized it instantly as the Albright Kentucky rifle that I had appraised.

There aren't very many of them and this one had a carving of a deer jumping over a log on the left side. The gun had been completely refinished and sanded down to where the carving was indistinct, where you could barely make out where the carving had originally been. The gun had been completely shined to a high finish. The metal had been refinished and the brass had been polished. The name was ground almost off. It looked like a brand new reproduction and the guy who showed it to me was so proud of his work he said "Yeah, I told the lady that this will bring $30,000 now that I've cleaned all of the crap off of it," and I was ejected from the place for telling him that he took a great treasure and turned it into nothing. It wasn't worth $3,000 after what he did to it.

If somebody does inherit a collectors piece, an antique gun, or even just an older firearm they feel may be worth something, how do they properly care for it? Restoration is restoration, but most people who repair guns are not qualified to be restorers. A general rule of thumb is never to do too much, and in most cases do nothing. Myself personally, when I get guns I do almost no restoration because everyone has a different idea of restoration. I just make them work.

Collectors love and will pay for original dirt. Patina is very important. What is patina? Patina is essentially original dirt. People really like the original dirt on a gun.

That rust and corrosion are often what give a gun its character. Still, it's not like we want to encourage more rust or damage. What precautions should a collector take to preserve their firearms? Guns love good oil. With all of the synthetic products that we wrap these guns in, you go and buy a boot or a case for a gun and it has a synthetic interior when you put some of these new products on the guns they can react with the linings of these cases and cause pitting and rust.

I have guns I paid a million dollars for and I've handled the finest guns in the world. The best way is to just oil it and wrap it in a cotton T-shirt, towel, or sock. I have guns that I put away 25 years ago and they're still perfect wrapped in a cotton towel. You just take them, unwrap them and oil them once or twice a year and they're perfect.

There's a terrible story about Frank Singer, who was one of the biggest collectors in America, and he went and bought some of this fancy oil and put his guns in these sheepskin lined boots and there was a reaction between the oil and the sheepskin because of the humidity in the safe where they were stored and it did $500,000 worth of damage to his fine Colt collection. He was insured and he proved it in a court of law that the chemical reaction occurred.

Well, I appreciate the time you've taken to talk to us today. You're a wealth of information. What I'm here for is to learn more. Every auction I do, I learn more. This auction was fantastic for me because I learned more about dueling pistols. I thought I knew a lot until I had this collection and met the man who collected it. He spent 40 years learning it and now I've spent 4 or 5 months learning it and it's really been a joy in my opinion just to handle this merchandise.

One of the important thing in collecting is to get a couple of good mentors. There are people in the business who are very knowledgeable. A guy starting out alone should always get a second or third opinion and the older guys who have been collecting a long time will always help the younger guys.

Join a collectors club or collectors association. If you live in Texas, join the Texas Gun Collectors Association, it's the best collectors club in the country. I've been a member for 40 years and there isn't a better group of guys. The show is a hoot and the guys are great.

John Gangel is the owner of Little John's Auction Service and his next auction is October 27th-28th in Orange California. You can browse through the listings in the up coming auction here on the Shooter's Log where we've broken the lots into three groups: Lots 1-450, Lots 451-900, and Lot 901-1500b.

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